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Speak Scrabblish and 'thwack your amis' at Scrabble (Q&A)

"Is That a Word?" author David Bukszpan wanted to improve his Scrabble game, but didn't want to memorize the dictionary. CNET talked to him about the game's unique -- and surprising -- lexicon.

If you're one of the millions of people who play Scrabble regularly, you surely know that you can't use proper nouns in the hit game. So how is it that words like "Alaska," "Berlin," "Bolivia," and even "Jane" are legal moves?

David Bukszpan photo by Ryan John Lee

Anyone who has spent any time reading the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD) knows that each of those words has an alternate meaning that satisfies the game's rules. And it was just that kind of information that author David Bukszpan was after when he began working on "Is That a Word? From AA to ZZZ, the Weird and Wonderful Language of Scrabble."

The book is an in-depth look at the odd-ball lexicon of words -- which he terms "Scrabblish" -- that are legal in Scrabble but which might get you funny looks if you used them in written or spoken conversation.

Yet, Bukszpan makes learning some of the Scrabblish basics a lot of fun. Did you know, for example, that the famous "Laverne & Shirley" opening of "Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated" uses three words that are legal according to the OSPD: A "schlemiel" is "a fool or someone with bad luck;" A "shlimazel" is "someone perennially unlucky;" and "hasenpfeffer" is "a German stew of rabbit or hare."

Hoping to learn some new tricks on how to thwack (whip) my friends (amis) at Scrabble, I sat down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview with Bukszpan yesterday. Here's his thoughts on the most bizarre Scrabblish word, his favorite Scrabblish sentence, his ideal setting for a game of Scrabble, and more.

Q: To start off with, in your expert opinion, what's the most bizarre word that's in the official Scrabble dictionary?
David Bukszpan: That's a more complicated question than you might at first imagine. The thing is, there are actually two Scrabble dictionaries. There's the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), but that book doesn't contain all the playable words. And there's the official tournament and club list, known as the OWL, or the OWL2 now that it's in its second edition, and that contains the "dirty" words plus words that were too long to include in the OSPD.

So my favorite word in the dictionary, or at least the most bizarre, is "Zzz," the last word. It's odd not just because it has no vowels, but also because it's very difficult to play: It requires the one and only Z and both blanks. On top of that, it's fairly useless, because it's hard to imagine any situation when it would be wise to use both blanks just to play the Z. The word is defined, by the way, as an interjection "used to suggest the sound of snoring."

So "Zzz" is a perfect example of the tons of words that are in the OSPD but which, you know, aren't words in the real world. What's that all about?
Bukszpan: Scrabble and other word games, like Words with Friends, Bananagrams, and the like, are full of words that we don't usually think of as words. At least they're not a part of our everyday vocabulary. I like to think of that lexicon as a slightly different language I call Scrabblish, which consists of not just the English words we know, but of injections (like "Zzz" and "Hmm" and "Tsktsk") and Old English and Old Scottish words (like "Hae," meaning "to have") and other words we think of as foreign that have been absorbed, like popular Yiddish and Spanish words. There are also words that we just plain don't think of as words like the name of the letter H: "Aitch."

That's a word?
Bukszpan: Oh, yes, just as "Zee" and "Zed" (and "Izzard") denote the letter Z.

So how does this advance the state of the English language? It feels more to me like it makes a mockery of English.
Bukszpan: I think a lot of people see it that way. Like, "Well then, anything I say is a word." And I used to feel like that when I discovered a word I never thought could exist, especially when an opponent played it against me. But I found myself appreciating the scope of our language, or at least the scope of Scrabblish. English, of course, is famous for absorbing so many words from other languages and for being so elastic. And although the dictionary for Scrabble necessarily cannot be elastic -- it must say, "These are words. and these aren't." It does change, and it does enlarge from one edition to the next.

Playing words that are Old English, say, or mostly used in the Scottish highlands and not the streets of St. Louis, playing and learning about words like those is a way of expanding our horizons. And it's a way of thinking about how we communicate, how we express things in words, when sometimes we don't even realize we're using words. Or we're asleep ("Zzz").

Finally, it's surprising, but a lot of these Scrabblish words that we'd never expect to be words actually come up fairly often, once we're made aware of them. To pick two from the first two pages of the dictionary, "Aa" is a word for a type of lava found in Hawaii, and "Abed" means "in bed." I've encountered both those words numerous times since I started writing the book.

For the casual player, who will never play in a tournament, but maybe wants to beat a friend who always comes out a few points ahead, what are five good words they should learn (besides "Za" and "Qi")?
Bukszpan: It's really useful to know the 101 two-letter words. And, of course, it's particularly helpful to know words that help you score with the high-point letters so "Jo" (a friend) is a great one. So are "Xi" (a greek letter) and "Xu" (a Vietnamese currency). Another, "Ki," which is an alternate spelling of "QI," is also very useful. And "Qat," a type of shrub, is helpful in ditching the Q. As it happens, "Qi" is the most played word in Scrabble.

I like the idea of Scrabblish. In the book, you list some sentences made using Scrabblish. What's your favorite all (or mostly all)- Scrabblish sentence?
Bukszpan: There's one in particular I really do get a kick out of: "A gaga dodo in a bubu, a coocoo kaka in a mumu, and a chichi nana in a tutu go to the dada godo."

And that means?
Bukszpan: If you were to translate that from Scrabblish to English, you get something like "An insane (large, extinct) bird in a (large, flowing) garment, a crazy (type of New Zealand) parrot in a (loose-fitting) dress, and a stylish grandmother in a (ballerina) skirt go to the (irrational) art-movement disco." I think it works better in Scrabblish.

Are you going to create a Scrabblish to English translation iPhone app?
Bukszpan: Ha! Or should I say "Hah!"

Clearly, there's a lot of people who learn this lexicon in order to win at Scrabble or Words with Friends. Are there also secret societies where people get together just to speak Scrabblish with each other?
Bukszpan: It's mostly just me spraying sentences like the one above at my friends until they roll their eyes and go back to whatever else they were doing. And that's probably for the best.

So, Scrabble. What would be your ideal setting for a game?
Bukszpan: Scrabble, Words with Friends, Banagrams or what-have-you, are all to my mind best played live and in person, rather than on a mobile device. Then, it's best to be in a place that's beautiful, so you can enjoy your surroundings as you wait for your turn -- and yes, it's a proven fact that one's opponent is always slower than you. And it helps to be in a quiet place, without too much distraction. So the beach or a park are great. But it's also great to play indoors when the weather is foul, and you can just watch the snow or rain coming down outside.

So come clean, How many games of Words with Friends do you currently have going?
Bukszpan: You got me. I'm actually more of a Scrabble app player than a Words with Friends guy, but currently I think I've got five going on. Also, to fully come clean, I think I'm losing two of those games. And if you see my sister, please tell her to just go already. she hasn't played since like yesterday morning.

You wrote in the book about Scrabble Trickster -- a Scrabble game that wasn't available in North America that permits proper nouns, and spell words backwards, among other things. I recall that the whole Scrabble world thought at first that the official rules to the main game were changing to allow proper nouns. And everyone freaked out. Why did so many people went so ballistic over that?
Bukszpan: I remember that. I was finishing the draft of the book and thought I was completely screwed. I guess it had to do with the fact that people feel there are certain things that are enjoyable because they're a little difficult. There are joys in trying to get better at something, even when it momentarily stings when we slowly learn how hard a challenge might be. Scrabble is also a game that a lot of folks start playing as children, against older siblings or parents or grandparents. So I think we take from that experience the memory of wanting to learn the words they knew, of seeing a goal in not just winning but improving our vocabularies.

That's a goal, by the way, with which Scrabble's creator, Alfred Mosher Butts, identified -- even if he would've been floored by what the Scrabble lexicon looks like today.

So making popstars' names playable seemed to fly in the face of not just the established rulebook, but the idea that Scrabble, perhaps more than any other game, has a useful side to it that has its own merits.

So, since you've (presumably) mastered Scrabblish, how much has your average score improved?
Bukzspan: I still have a long way to go, and I'm still far from the kind of players who play tournaments. But yes, my score has improved dramatically since starting this project. And that's how this book began: I was looking for a way -- short of reading the dictionary -- to learn words that might be useful in Scrabble. Finding nothing suitable, i started writing the kinds of tongue-twister type sentences found in the third part of the book. Then I wanted to share them with friends. In a way, it was my own way to play with words with friends.